How Roma Families are Taking Action against Czech School Discrimination

The community-mobilization effort in Ostrava is giving Roma families hope that the existing, flawed system can be challenged, one child at a time.

Human rights supporters around the world know that winning a court victory against discrimination is not the same as ending discrimination. Kristina Vaněrková, a Roma woman living in the city of Ostrava in the Czech Republic, knows this from a 16-year battle to secure a decent education for her family.

Back in 1999, Kristina’s joined a group of other Roma parents in an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of their children, who had been diverted away from mainstream education into schools for children with developmental difficulties that offered a highly limited curriculum. In 2007, the court agreed that the 18 children from Ostrava had indeed been subject to discrimination, and it ordered the Czech government to remedy the situation.

Kristina is now a grandmother, but not much has changed with the Czech school system. A new report from Amnesty International this month pointed out that the government has yet to set concrete targets for introducing a properly inclusive education system. Roma children account for around a third of the students in the second-tier schools, although Roma make up only around 3 per cent of the Czech population.

Thus it came about that in January 2014, when Kristina tried to enrol her grandson at a mainstream local school, the school principal made racist remarks as he administered an enrolment test, and then rejected the application a few days later, putting him on track for a place in a practical school.

But this time around, she and other members of her community were better prepared and better organized.  With the support of a group of four local Roma community organizers, and with the help of the NGO Life Together, she and some 40 other families had been meeting regularly to understand how the educational system was segregating Roma children. The parents had rehearsed the enrolment process; their children had been preparing for the entrance test; they were backed by a team of monitors (mostly other Roma parents) who were ready and watching for any evidence of irregularities during the enrolment process.

So when her grandson was turned down last year, Kristina immediately challenged the decision, equipped with the monitoring evidence. The school backed down and accepted the child.

Most of the children of the first 40 families involved in this effort in Ostrava ended up in mainstream education. Although the efforts are still small in scale, the campaign has grown to involve over 500 Roma; so far they have helped make sure that 100 Roma children are getting the mainstream education they need.   

A survey conducted in areas of Ostrava with a high concentration of segregated schools carried out last  July found that 95 per cent of parents in Ostrava expected to see their children placed in a so called “practical” school. Today, as a result of the campaign, the figure has dropped to around 20 per cent.

There is still a long way to go. An estimated 300,000 Roma live in the Czech Republic, and roughly a third of them still end up in practical schools (which are also used to segregate children with mild mental disabilities). The students finish school without hope of proper educational credentials, leaving them in turn with little prospect of finding a decent job as adults.

Efforts by some parts of the Czech government to shift towards a fully-inclusive schooling model have been frustrated by political opposition, including resistance from non-Roma parents, and lobbying by an association set up to represent teachers at the practical schools. Meanwhile, even in mainstream schools, Roma children often face bullying from fellow students, and antagonistic teachers.

Frustrated with the lack of progress on the issue, the European Commission last year asked the Czech government to respond to complaints that it is breaching European Union law by continuing to allow Roma children to be funneled into separate schools, in breach of both the EU’s anti-discrimination law and its charter of fundamental rights. (The Commission said this week it is launching a similar action against Slovakia.)

Ultimately it is up to the Czech government to make the systemic changes needed, and to embrace a future of fully inclusive education for all. In the meantime, the community-mobilization effort in Ostrava is giving Roma families hope that the existing, flawed system can be challenged, one child at a time—and strengthening the pressure for change.

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